Marvelous Marine Mammals: How Long Can Whales Hold Their Breath?

Shirin Biswas
Jan 31, 2023 By Shirin Biswas
Originally Published on Oct 28, 2021
Edited by Jacob Fitzbright
Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi
Sperm whale swimming under water.

Whales are pretty famous for their diving skills, but have you wondered how the heart of this animal doesn't stop beating even when there is no constant breathing?

Did you know that a whale can control the activities of its heart to increase the number of minutes that it can spend during dives? Well, there are more whale facts that will blow you away!

Whales are rather fascinating mammals and have always been a subject of interest for scientists who like to study their behavior, dives, and sleeping patterns. To get you started with facts, did you know that sperm whales can hold their breath for more than an hour? Keep reading for more facts!

If you enjoyed this article, why not also check out how long are whales pregnant and can guinea pigs eat bread.

How do whales go so long without breathing?

Whales are deep-diving mammals that have wondrous abilities when it comes to breathing and the regulation of oxygen levels within their bodies.

Like humans, whales have lungs and breathe oxygen from the air, unlike other mammals and marine creatures of the ocean who have gills and can breathe the dissolved oxygen from water itself.

Understandably, since they need air to fill their lungs, whales come up to the surface of the water every few minutes or in a few hours in some cases.

However, the fact that their respiratory system is efficient helps in utilizing the oxygen for longer!

Whales breathe air since they do not have gills that would support extracting oxygen while underwater in the ocean. Hence, before a dive, whales come to the surface of the water and hold as much oxygen as would be required in order to remain underwater for a few minutes or hours.

Their capacity of holding oxygen, according to scientific research, comes from myoglobin, which helps in the supply of oxygen to all muscles of the body.

How long can a whale hold its breath while sleeping?

Researchers are yet to find out the duration for which these mammals can sustain life and hold their breath while asleep.

However, the number of minutes that whales spend sleeping aligns with the amount of time that they spend in a typical dive. Hence, the interval between each breath remains the same for this large mammal even when it is asleep.

How do whales sleep without drowning?

Unlike in the case of fish and human beings, breathing is not an involuntary action for whales. Hence, these sea animals do not sleep for longer than the number of minutes for which they would typically be able to hold their breath underwater.

Researchers and scientists also observed that these mammals remain in a state of half-consciousness even while asleep. This, according to science, essentially means that whales have half a brain in a functional state and even keep one of their eyes open while they are asleep.

This is done so that the mammal is able to watch its environment and can wake up just in time for the next breath.

The fact that whales have a partly functional brain even while they are sleeping is also helpful in making sure that the animal does not end up sleeping for longer than it can afford to without any air to breathe. Whales also have a typical habit of sleeping in a vertical position.

This allows their noses to be closer to the surface of the sea surface so that these animals can wake up from their sleep and easily get access to some fresh air!

Pod of sperm whales swimming under water.

Do whales have lungs?

Whales are one of the only diving mammals in the world that have lungs instead of gills. Lungs are common to all types of whales, irrespective of the species. Hence, whether it be a sperm whale or a Cuvier's beaked whale, they all have lungs.

The amount of breath that each whale species can draw before a dive is largely dependent upon the species and the capacity of their lungs. Hence, the lung capacity also dictates the number of hours for which a deep water dive would continue.

Once the oxygen levels start reducing in the blood, a whale comes up for a fresh surge of air that can enrich its muscles and make it ready for the next session of diving!

Which whale can hold its breath the longest?

The Cuvier's beaked whale holds the record for holding its breath for no less than 222 minutes.

Due to understandable reasons, human beings have only been able to notice these patterns of dicing and drawing breath in the case of whales that live in man-made aquariums. It becomes very hard to record such deep water dives in wild whales since they often wander off to strange parts of the ocean.

Before the recent record, it was another Cuvier's beaked whale that held its breath for hours and hours before it came up for another dose of oxygen. Hence, it does seem to certain scientists that these whales have the tendency to hold their breath the longest.

However, even sperm whales have one of the longest durations between each breath. A sperm whale can survive for around two hours before it comes back for another breath!

How do marine mammals hold their breath for so long?

Not all underwater species of animals need to enrich their muscles with air before their deep water diving. Whales are one of the only underwater animals that search for an occasion to come up to the surface of the water for a breather.

This is because whales have lungs instead of gills - much like humans do. Hence, they cannot spend too much time underwater and their blood to be supplied with a fresh reserve of oxygen every few minutes.

However, the myoglobin in their systems helps them in increasing the time for which oxygen can be held within the body.

Myoglobin is essentially a protein that helps in creating a bond between the blood and the oxygen molecules. Scientists suggest is as the reason why an average whale can spend an hour or two between each breath!

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly factsfor everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for how long can whales hold their breaththen why not take a look at what is a group of whales called, or can ferrets eat cat food.

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Written by Shirin Biswas

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English Language and Literature

Shirin Biswas picture

Shirin BiswasBachelor of Arts specializing in English Language and Literature

With a degree in English from Amity University, Noida, Shirin has won awards for oratory, acting, and creative writing. She has a wealth of experience as an English teacher, editor, and writer, having previously worked at Quizzy and Big Books Publishing. Her expertise lies in editing study guides for children and creating engaging content.

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Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi

Postgraduate Diploma in Management

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Sakshi RaturiPostgraduate Diploma in Management

Sakshi has experience in marketing strategy, social media planning, and recruiting industry experts for capstone projects, she has displayed a commitment to enhancing their skills and knowledge. She has won multiple awards, including a Certificate of Appreciation for Creative Writing and a Certificate of Merit for Immaculate Turut, and is always seeking new opportunities to grow and develop.

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